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Magic Cards That Brought Me Joy In 2020

For all the tumult of 2020, Bennie Smith found joy in Magic in 2020. He shares his Top 10 of favorite cards of the year.

War Room, illustrated by Milivoj Ceran

Happy New Year everyone! 

2020 has been an insanely weird, deadly, effed-up year and it feels awesome to turn the page and begin a brand-new year that almost can’t help but be better. On the Magic front, there’s hope that once a majority of people get vaccinated against COVID that we might be able to get back to The Gathering we’ve been missing during the pandemic.  Personally, I’m really hoping that SCG CON Winter 2021 will happen so Wendy and I can see so many people we’ve missed and grind out nonstop Commander games in Roanoke. 2020 was the Year of Commander, but I imagine (hope) that so many big Commander events that got shut down because of COVID might re-emerge this year and the next.

On the Magic front though, there were lots of things to be happy about. And while I gladly shut the book on 2020 overall, I did want to acknowledge all the new cards that brought me joy and happiness, even if I could only enjoy playing them safely and remotely on Arena or Spelltable.

Going through all the new cards that were printed in 2020 took a long time but it was a nice stroll down memory lane.  I was pleasantly surprised to see nearly 50 (!) cards made my first cut of cards I was very happy to exist in Magic, but for my editor’s sanity I didn’t want this to turn into a five-part series delving deep into why each of those 50 brought me joy (CEDitor’s Note: It’s much appreciated Benny!).  So, the next cut was to zoom in on the top ten cards that I’m thrilled to have been made, the cards that I want to give Magic R&D a grateful hug and high-five for their efforts.  I’m still going to show you the other cards that were on the “short” list but fell outside the top tier, but right now let’s kick off the best of the best, in no particular order.

Radha, Heart of Keld

If you only know me through my writing here at StarCityGames.com, you may think I play Commander exclusively, but I’ve also long been a fan of Standard and played it quite a lot pre-pandemic. One of my favorite cards for Standard was Courser of Kruphix.

The effect of being able to play lands off the top of your deck is subtly powerful, ensuring that more of the cards you draw into your hand are nonland action cards.  Given enough time, the advantage you gain is going to win you games, despite the fact that your opponent is going to be working on nearly perfect information since they’ll know just about every card you draw once Courser hits the battlefield.

When Courser rotated out of Standard I naturally wanted to put it in Commander decks, but I quickly realized that allowing three opponents to have near-perfect information is a huge drawback, and the little throw-in of one life whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control barely registers.

Praise be to Wizards of the Coast (WotC) though for taking the best part of Courser and replacing “playing with the top card of your library revealed” with “you may look at the top card of your library any time.”  Not only that, it’s on a legendary permanent, so if you want this effect badly enough, you can always have it from the command zone. But wait, there’s more — Radha gets first strike when attacking and you get a powerful late-game mana sink with that activation, which turns Radha into a huge threat.

I quickly built a Radha, Heart of Keld Commander deck, slotted her into the 99 of several other decks, and built a Radha Brawl deck on Magic Online which is loads of fun to play. I’ve probably played Radha, Heart of Keld more than any other Magic card this year and I love it!

Shadowspear

In my opinion, the best games of Commander are highly interactive, with players casting threats and threats getting answered, creating wild swings and crazy plays.

Conversely, games where someone has cheated out Avacyn, Angel of Hope or assembled Privileged Position and Sterling Grove are the worst, with everyone else sitting there helpless, hoping to draw the one or two cards capable of punching through the lockout. When I first saw Shadowspear my jar dropped to the floor in amazement. I’d been known to slip Bonds of Mortality in green Commander decks to help out against hexproof and indestructible shutting out interaction, but it still felt bad to draw it when playing against people who aren’t setting up those sorts of things, despite the cantrip effect.

So, three cheers to whoever decided to take the activated ability of Bonds of Mortality and attach it to an incredibly cheap and efficient Equipment card with lots of other relevant text even if the activated ability isn’t needed! This card literally belongs in any Commander deck that runs creatures or has a creature commander.  And being able to sometimes destroy indestructible Theros Gods in Brawl on Arena has been a godsend when I draw it.

Scute Swarm

I have had a ton of fun with the mutate mechanic from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths on Arena, but when Zendikar Rising came out and people started mutating Migratory Greathorn and Auspicious Starrix on a Scute Swarm with six lands on the battlefield and going crazy making copies of their mutant monstrosity, I fell head over heels in love. I don’t play Standard very often on Arena (I’m usually in for the Brawl) but I’m always happy to give my Simic Mutate deck a whirl several times a week, and I’m thrilled when my opponent allows me to go off making mutated Scute Swarm copies before I attack for lethal. And yes, I’ve bumped into the recently implemented limit of 250 tokens on the battlefield at a time. It’s glorious!

I’ve yet to play mutate creatures and Scute Swarm together in paper Commander, but I imagine it’ll be more tedious than fun without the Arena client figuring everything out for you.

Charix, the Raging Isle

One thing that’s amazing about being a Commander fan is the sheer delight you can get when a new legendary creature is previewed that is incredibly weird and full of flavor, and Charix, the Raging Isle brought me that delight in spades.  A whopping seventeen power, for just four mana?  Now that is indeed a Leviathan Crab!  The activated ability really makes designing a deck for this a lot of fun, strongly encouraging you to ensure nearly all your lands are Islands if you want to get aggressive.  Sure, you lose out on a lot of utility lands, but honestly blue has plenty of nonland cards that cover a lot of bases.

Brash Taunter

Mogg Maniac is a card I loved playing with way back in my pre-EDH multiplayer days. People would cast giant monsters and I’d have a 1/1 Goblin that waved those monsters away and encouraged them to attack elsewhere. So, for an extra three colorless mana, we now get Brash Taunter, and wow!  This card is simply amazing.  Giving it indestructible and the ability to fight anything on the battlefield really puts a lot of pressure against people who play huge monsters. 

Remarkably, Brash Taunter still seems to be flying under the radar, and I continually surprise people on Arena and in paper Commander games where it’s apparent someone isn’t reading all the text when they cast a gigantic creature that I’m going to end up killing them with.

Kogla, the Titan Ape

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths was an incredible set. A world crawling with giant monsters just can’t help but have awesome cards for Commander, and for my money one of the coolest of these giant monsters was Kogla, the Titan Ape

Inspired by King Kong, it delivers both on flavor and battlefield impact. It checks nearly all the boxes for what you’d want for a grade-A+ creature for Commander: it has an enters-the-battlefield effect to immediately get a payoff for the six-mana investment; it has an on-attack trigger to destroy an artifact or enchantment defending player controls; lastly, it has the ability to give itself indestructible if you happen to have a Human around to return to your hand.

Oh, and if that Human has an enters-the-battlefield trigger, for example Eternal Witness, you can cast it again it for value.  For me personally, the only thing more I could want from a green creature is that sweet, sweet phrase “this spell can’t be countered” but that would probably be too much text and the mana cost would go up – six mana is spot on.  This card is quite literally perfection.

Shark Typhoon

This is the sort of card that’s a nightmare for me in tournament play.  If my control opponent has a bunch of open mana and I’ve got a spell I want to resolve, experience has taught me that I should attack first and see if they spend any mana to destroy one of my attacking creatures, and if they do, then I can go ahead and resolve my spell for the turn. Now, I’ve got to worry that one of my attackers will get eaten by a giant, flying Shark that draws a card when they cycle Shark Typhoon. So, do I cast that test spell first?  Do I even attack into a bunch of mana if my creatures are small? 

Or how about after my opponent has swept the battlefield, I cast a creature, and then they hard-cast Shark Typhoon?  Now, every noncreature spell they cast creates more and more flying Sharks.  See, it’s a nightmare!

And you know what?  I simply love it.  Because it’s a Shark typhoon, and the Sharks are flying!  I have yet to see any flying Sharks bigger than a 5/5 on a Commander table, but I cannot wait to see a 10/10, a 20/20, or even larger.  The stories that this enchantment will generate in the years to come will be epic!

Rograkh, Son of Rohgahh

Kobolds have always been hilarious creatures. Before Magic, I played a ton of Dungeons & Dragons, and Kobolds were these little tiny creatures that individually were barely a nuisance but in large numbers could spell trouble for lower-level characters. When Magic’s take on Kobolds showed up in Legends, I thought it was brilliant—zero-mana 0/1 creatures are so weird and hilarious, it was a challenge to figure out what to do with them.

Years later, Kher Keep showed up in Time Spiral, and it could tap to make a Kobolds of Kher Keep token creature, and then in Commander 2013 Prossh, Skyraider of Kher showed up who also made Kobolds of Kher Keep token creatures. Having a token be the exact same as an actual Magic card was hilarious!  So, when another zero mana 0/1 Kobold showed up in Commander Legends, this one legendary and chock full of combat abilities, it just blew my mind with happiness and hilarity. And I’ve seen it do some crazy stuff in Commander decks already—all hail our Kobold overlord!

War Room

I’m a huge fan of utility lands, and there has been no shortage of them printed in recent years, to the point that many great lands don’t even make the cut in some decks anymore. War Room is a utility land that’s here to stay in every mono- and two-color from now until the end of time. A multiplayer format like Commander requires a fair amount of card flow to ensure that you have action at all points in a game, and War Room provides it without costing a nonland slot in your deck.  Four mana and one or two points of life are always going to be worth an extra card at instant speed. 

When these were available for pre-orders, I instantly bought ten of them because I’m a maniac and have 30+ Commander decks in paper.  If you have gotten a copy for each mono- and two-color deck you own, do so now while they’re still cheap.

Elder Gargaroth

Years ago, Patrick Chapin put forth the concept that good midrange creatures needed to be either Mulldrifters or Baneslayer Angels. Either they needed to provide value immediately upon entering the battlefield, like Mulldrifter, or provide so much value once it began getting involved in combat, like Baneslayer Angel, to make it worth the risk that you would spend all that mana and chance it dying immediately to Heartless Act.

Well, if we were ever curious to see what a bona fide green Baneslayer Angel might look like, now we know it looks like Elder Gargaroth — and it makes me so incredibly happy this exists!  Elder Gargaroth is the sort of creature that you put in your green decks to alleviate the removal pressure that might otherwise be pointed at your commander: if they’re saving their Swords to Plowshares for your commander and you drop Elder Gargaroth, are they going to hang onto that removal spell and let you start attacking with it?

There you have it, my “Top 10” new cards from 2020 that bring a huge smile to my face!  But wait, there’s more!

Honorable Mentions

It’s going to be no surprise that I loved so many new green cards this year, and it blows my mind that many of these aren’t even creature spells!  I had a lot of fun with Primal Might in particular playing Mono-Green in Standard on Arena for several months this year, and Ram Through just this past weekend won me a game I was going to lose if I didn’t find an extra twenty or more points of damage to push through; luckily for me, I had a huge trampling creature to unlock the Fireball mode on Ram Through!

White got a lot of cool cards too!  On Arena I’ve got a Boros deck in Historic that does crazy fun things with Brash Taunter, Stormwild Capridor, and sorcery spells that deal damage to all creatures.  Keeper of the Accord is the real deal, finally offering a powerful way for white decks to play catch up with land ramp (though I recently played against a Bant deck that played Keeper of the Accord to “catch up” and then started in on the green ramping, which seemed so wrong). And I simply love the way that Luminous Broodmoth is designed – bringing back nonflying creatures from the dead to fly the skies is both fun flavor and powerful.

There were some really awesome legends printed this year, even before we got to Commander Legends.  I wrote about a ton of them right here on StarCityGames.com, but I just wanted to highlight a few of them here that I most loved, either by doing fun things, powerful things, flavorful things, or some combination of that.

Since the earliest days of Magic, I’ve hated the color blue mostly because of its brutally efficient ways of dealing with everything through counterspells. That said, I really love when blue steps outside of brutal efficiency and does cool things, and this year brought some really cool examples of that!  I mentioned in my Top 10 my love for flying Sharks — well, I also like the big counterspell Shark, Voracious Greatshark.  I love how it “eats” a creature spell and then swims around on the battlefield looking for more creatures to eat.

Red has been on a roll these past few years, with fun and powerful designs that constantly wow me.  Three of my Top 10 are red or have red in the color identity, and the list continues here. Fiery Emancipation is an incredible way to instantly turn your mediocre battlefield into a terrifying presence, and I particularly love Yidaro, Wandering Monster’s cycling ability and really want to build a Standard deck with four copies that suddenly starts spitting them out onto the battlefield at instant speed once you’ve cycled one four times. Of course, my favorite part of this card is the Godzilla, Doom Inevitable version with amazing artwork, and the game animation for it on Arena runs through my head any time I play the paper version.

Outside of Shadowspear, there were a few other incredible artifacts that I’m grateful exist now.

Interestingly, there weren’t a whole lot of black cards that thrilled me this year, so the evil side of my Golgari soul has been a bit malnourished. I do really like the design of Netherborn Altar as a way to help defray the commander tax on expensive commanders, and in particular as another way you can play Phage the Untouchable as your commander.  And while I suppose Kels, Fight Fixer is technically Dimir, I love the way this whole cycle was designed so that you could easily just play it as a mono-color commander if you wanted to.

In addition to War Room, Commander fans got another incredible utility land with Bonders’ Enclave – though the placement of the apostrophe I’m sure has been a nightmare for editors! (Copy Editor’s Note: Yuuuuuup.) Basically, if you’re playing less than four colors and your commander has power four or greater, Bonders’ Enclave is a slam-dunk inclusion for your deck. 

And bravo to Gavin Verhey for bringing us the enemy-color cycle of the Battlebond lands (after also bringing us the allied-color originals); these lands are exactly the sort of color fixing we need in Commander, and printing them in a widely available set helps ensure plenty of copies get into the hands of those of us who need them.

2020 Razzies

I wanted this article to be a positive one, but I couldn’t peruse all the new cards of 2020 without noting a handful that I felt represented some learning opportunities for Wizards on what not to do in the future. So, consider these my 2020 “Razzies” awards.

Enough is enough!  Support for Simic ramp strategies is out of control. It ruined Standard and is a joke in Commander. I literally get angry thinking about Nyxbloom Ancient and Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy, while Aesi, Tyrant of Gyre Strait is such a lazy and boring value engine I roll my eyes every time I see it. I almost put Jeweled Lotus on this list, but to my mind the card is fine: the vast majority of decks don’t need to run it, but if you open one and want to stick your shiny new $65 card in one of your decks, go for it.

Vintage-level powerful cards should be relegated to a product like Eternal Masters. Printing these two cards in Commander Legends tells new players that it’s okay to throw one of these in your casual deck if you crack one open, which will lead to poor play experiences. Imagine someone drawing an Evolving Wilds when an opponent has Opposition Agent sitting on the battlefield. Or someone with an empty hand draws Harmonize when their opponent has Hullbreacher on the battlefield. Eventually people are going to figure out that neither card belongs in casual games of Commander, but I dread the feel-bads along the way to that realization.

Jumpstart was an incredible product that would have sold like gangbusters if it weren’t for a global pandemic that threw a huge monkey wrench into the supply chain and crushed in-store demand. Because of this, some of the rares and mythic rares are insanely expensive to acquire. What I’m particularly upset about is Allosaurus Shepherd, which is pretty much a slam-dunk inclusion in just about any green deck if it didn’t cost $75 a pop. Like, I really want ten copies of this card, but no way am I going to dish out the cash or trade for even just one.

And by the way—hand destruction strategies in Commander are just a tiny step up from mass land destruction in terms of crappy things you can do in this casual, multiplayer format. Tinybones, Trinket Thief is adorable, but encourages the sort of deck that is misery for all of your opponents.

These two cards are simply miserable to play against in Brawl and should be banned. A cheap, indestructible card that juices your entire deck strategy and sits in your command zone is a mistake for the format. We can only play one copy of Shadowspear to deal with them and that will only help some of the time. I literally just now took a break from writing this article to play some Brawl on Arena and my opponent was playing Thassa (easily 25% of my Brawl opponents play Heliod or Thassa), and the one value creature I finally wasn’t able to kill just ground me into oblivion being blinked by Thassa.  I wish that Wizards would be more aggressive in tending to the Brawl format to make it more interactive and fun.

So what are the top cards from 2020 that brought you joy? What new cards would be on your Razzies list?

Do me a solid and follow me on Twitter!  I run polls and get conversations started about Commander all the time, so get in on the fun!  I’d also love it if you followed my Twitch channel TheCompleteCommander, where I do Commander, Brawl and sometimes other Magic-related streams when I can.  If you can’t join me live, the videos are available on demand for a few weeks on Twitch, but I also upload them to my YouTube channel.

And lastly, I just want to say: let us love each other and stay healthy and happy. 

Visit my Decklist Database to see my decklists and the articles where they appeared!

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